The Book of Counted Sorrows
One Small Step
May 21, 2025
From the audio journal of Ryan Dallion
I think the dream is always the same.
I can't remember everything; each time I notice something different, but I always know it's just a dream. My attention shifts from one detail to another like leaves caught in the wind. I'm standing at the edge of a cliff, a dead place where the only sound is my own labored breathing. The air is thin and foul; my lungs ache with each breath. Just standing is difficult, but at least I have a bronze-handled cane to lean on.
But I'm not moving, just standing there looking over the cliff, staring at the black stone wall stretching downward into darkness. A faint glow is the only illumination, revealing just enough of my surroundings for me to realize that I don't want to be here. The gray light filters through motionless clouds, falling into the darkness before me and defeated by it.
I don't know how long I've been standing here when I hear movement behind me; a footstep, quiet but making no attempt to surprise me. I don't even turn to look because I don't want to know anymore. I've lived enough nightmares; the ones in my mind no longer scare me. Only the memories.
Something brushes against me; a hand, perhaps. I turn around slowly, raising the cane like a weapon, but nothing is there, nothing but a single white candle resting in a brass stand, its flame steady in the still air. The light extends out only a few feet, revealing a little more of my surroundings; nothing but barren, cracked earth beneath my bare feet. I'm standing in that region just beyond the light but not yet consumed by the darkness, that place where the details get fuzzy and nothing seems clear anymore.
I see a figure standing on the other side of the candle, almost a reflection but without substance or depth; a ghost at best, and ghosts can't hurt me.
The flame flickers and dies, leaving me in complete darkness; not even the faint light from the sky remains. And then I hear the voice whisper in my ear. I wake up, my heart pounding, the sheets soaked, utterly terrified.
And I can't even remember what was said.
"Morning, sleepyhead," Ryan said as Nate shuffled out of the bedroom in all his glory - hair matted and tangled, plaid boxer shorts hanging just a touch too low on his scrawny frame for Ryan to be comfortable with. His black tee shirt was emblazoned with a hideous logo for some band calling themselves Purple Herbert, who Ryan was certain he would never have listened to even in his youth.
"Bite me," Nate grumped in response as he flipped Ryan the finger and opened the cooler that sat by the door. "Want a soda?"
"Not before noon; it's barely nine."
"No wonder I'm not human yet."
Ryan took a sip of coffee and scrolled absently through the Chicago Tribune articles displayed on his dataflat. Nothing new, really; people were still people.
I wouldn't exactly call Uncle Lewis 'people'.
"Call what people? And who's Uncle Louie?" Nate said as he popped open a can of soda and sat down on the other side of the small table.
"Uncle Louie. You said his name a second ago." Nate paused a moment - no small feat - then said, "Earth to Ryan, pull your head out, dude."
"Sorry." Ryan shook his head as if to clear the cobwebs before focusing on the dataflat again.
"So who is he?"
"Someone I'd... rather not talk about," Ryan said, anger tingeing his voice.
"Gotcha," Nate replied, sitting back in his chair with an expression of mock surprise on his face. He rooted around in a duffel bag for fresh jeans and then ran his hands through his hair in a vain attempt to tame the mess. "I'm gonna go check on our 'traveling companion'."
"She's awake already; she's an early riser like me."
"Bummer. And I was just starting to think we might be going somewhere." Nate pulled on his battered sneakers and walked toward the door. "Might as well check up on her, see if she needs anything."
"Good luck," Ryan said as Nate stepped out into the bright morning sun and closed the door behind him. They had stopped in the quiet town of Morningside the previous night, where Ryan had found a small resort which rented their cabins at reasonable rates during the off-season, which was just about to end. It was by far an improvement over the motel rooms he and Nate had shared for three nights; each of then had their own bed now, and their new passenger had enough money to pay for her own. The three of them had stayed up late the previous night, getting to know each other over cups of cocoa (although Ryan was fairly sure Nate had slipped a shot or two of whiskey into his).
Gina Maxwell had just received her bachelor's degree in journalism and was traveling around the United States for the summer to celebrate. She was also on a limited budget, which was the reason for her hitchhiking; Ryan understood this well, having hitchhiked to Omaha the summer after he'd graduated from high school. He sipped his coffee, read his chosen articles, and sat back in his chair, watching the clouds gather at the horizon through the large picture window that gave a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean.
Twenty minutes later the door opened, Nate balancing two grocery bags as he pushed his way into the room. Gina was a few steps behind, a carton of orange juice in her right hand. "Morning," Ryan said, setting the dataflat aside as Nate set the bags down on the small table.
"Hey. What's the agenda for the day?"
"No plans. Nate wants to spend a day here, go down to the beach and check out the girls - sorry, the 'scenery'," Ryan corrected quickly, his lips curling into a grin as Nate's eyes grew wide in shock. "He's a people person. Really."
"No doubt. Mind if I look at the paper?"
"Feel free." Ryan peeked into the bags, wondering what Nate had spend their daily food allowance on. "Ding-Dongs... Twinkies... potato chips... Did you buy any real food?"
"There's a salad in there for each of us," Gina said, quickly unpacking the bags and arranging their contents on the table. "Got some OJ, too. That's about it for health food." She put the perishables in the cooler, bagged up the rest carefully and set the bag down in a corner. "Mind if I cruise the net?"
"Feel free; I was done anyway," Ryan replied, reaching down and pulling a sketch pad from the knapsack by his feet. He opened the pad to the page marked by a pencil, something he had begun the previous night that he wanted to continue. "Ever think about modeling?"
"I'm sorry?" she said, her eyes never leaving the dataflat.
"Modeling, like for art classes. You've got the look for it."
"No; never entered my mind. I guess I'm not comfortable with that kind of attention."
Nate looked as if he was about to reply, but something held back his initial reply. "So... anyone up for hitting the beach?" is what he ended up saying.
"Now?" Ryan said.
"Why not? There's a picnic shelter down by the sand, plenty of shade, plenty of sun, plenty of... other stuff," he finished lamely.
"You go on ahead. I'll meet you down there after a while."
Nate retreated to the bathroom, emerging in nothing but red swimming trunks that exposed his fish-belly white legs. "Catch you later," he said, throwing a wink in Gina's direction before bounding out the door.
"Is he always like that?" she asked a moment after the door had closed.
"It's a lot to tolerate."
"Yeah, it is."
"Especially for someone of your age. No offense."
That old half smile crept onto his face, tugging at the right corner of his mouth. "None taken."
"Are you two involved?"
The smile vanished, replaced by a look of confusion. "Involved?"
"Attached. Intimate. A couple. You know, gay."
A moment passed before Ryan burst out laughing, the first time he had been able to for many months, even years. Tears were streaming from his eyes as the laughing finally trailed off into a fit of irregular giggles. "No, I'm not gay. Pretty sure Nate's not, either."
"Oh. So... why exactly are the two of you road tripping together? Seems like a pretty odd couple if you're not gay."
"You don't have much trouble expressing yourself, do you?"
"Don't dodge the question."
Ryan paused before answering. "All right. Two months ago, my wife passed away. She... was sick for a long time, and even though she had gotten better, she was never really the same. I spent the weeks afterward alone... or with Nate. He helped me more than I can express."
An awkward silence filled the room for a few seconds before Gina said, "I didn't mean to pry. I'm sorry."
"It's okay. Sometimes it can be good to talk, especially about-" Ryan focused his attention back on the sketch pad, ready to continue, but something had been scrawled in large block letters across the page that chilled his bones. It read:
Gina looked up after a few seconds when Ryan did not speak. "About what?"
"About... what brings us pain," he finished, quickly turning to a fresh page and shoving the pad and pencil back into the knapsack. "I'll be right back," he said as he stood and quickly walked to the bathroom, locking the door behind him. He turned the faucet on, splashing icy water on his face as his mind raced. "What the hell is going on?" he whispered, looking at his pallid face in the mirror. As he dipped his hands into the water again, a tiny rivulet of blood crept out of his left nostril and over his lip, forming drops that fell into the sink and stained the clear water.
The light dimmed, brightened, dimmed again. The small white bathroom began to spin around him and his knees folded, sending his body to rest on the tile floor. As his vision faded, all Ryan could do was lay there, staring up at the ceiling as he felt the blood run down the sides of his face.
"We have a situation."
Douglas Orton sat in his office, the overstuffed leather chair leaning back at a very comfortable-looking angle. "And that is?" he asked, taking a sip of water and looking over his huge oak desk at the elegantly dressed brunette who stood there.
"The woman is still alive. She has the information MacKenzie acquired."
"What have you found out about her?" Orton set his glass down and leaned forward, resting his chin on his folded hands.
"She went by at least three names in Seattle, and most likely used two more. None of the identities are legitimate. I believe she'll be using the identity of a college graduate to blend in. The name is Gina Maxwell."
"Have you been able to track her, Simone?"
"Not as yet." Her voice betrayed no sign of either fear or anger. "She left Seattle by means other than public transport. However, I believe I know where she's going." She activated her dataflat. "There has been a fifty-eight percent increase in Internet queries regarding our activities and possible motivations. The majority of these originated in Chicago and St. Louis. I have been able to trace the inquiries to within six blocks of their points of origin. I have also placed traps on any searches regarding us; further access will lead us right to them."
"What about the package?"
"The professor and his entourage left Turkey two days ago; the package will clear customs by this evening. A team is already in place for retrieval."
"No errors, Simone; the timetable is set. We have no time for errors. As for the woman, get teams to Chicago and St. Louis; take whoever you need. Watch for her. If she surfaces, bring her and the information to me, intact."
"And if she's with somebody?" Simone licked her lips in anticipation.
"Find out what you can from them... then enjoy yourself." Orton turned to look at the Washington, D.C. skyline. "Dispose of the bodies discreetly."
"I always do."
"Ryan? You awake?" A boy's voice, not more than nine or ten years old.
"Yeah." An older voice. No light, no shadows, just the two voices.
"It's dark out here."
"Yeah. You scared?"
"No." The voice became sulky. "I'm cold. Why can't we go home?"
"Because Mom and Dad are fighting again. I told you, I'm not gonna let them hurt us anymore."
"But I'm not hurt -"
"Jimmy, you just don't get it. Every time they fight it hurts us. They don't love us, not if they fight all the time."
"Shut up! Mom loves us!" The boy was yelling now, on the verge of tears.
"No," the older one said firmly. "She doesn't. Not anymore." The younger one's tears were clearly flowing now, his breath hitching as he tried not to break down completely.
After a while the tears stopped. "Where are we gonna go?" the younger one finally said.
"Away. We're gonna go away."
"Ryan? You awake?"
He heard the voice, wondered if deja vu was supposed to hurt this badly. "Uhhhh..."
"Hey, I think he's up. Ryan, man, you okay?" Nate's voice, close by, his breath laced with the smell of onions.
He tried to open his eyes, but the effort of raising his eyelids was almost overwhelming; the left side of his face ached terribly. There was a strange, uncomfortable sensation in his nose and throat; dry, as if he'd been out in a desert for days. "W... water," he croaked.
"Uh, sure." A cup touched his lips, and cold water dribbled into his mouth. He swallowed, letting the moisture work its wonders, and tried again to open his eyes. This time he was successful and saw Nate standing on his right, a plastic cup gripped tightly in his hand. Gina was standing at the foot of the bed, her expression quite clearly showing her concern. "Thought we lost you there for a while," Nate said.
"Where am I?" Ryan asked, already half-knowing the answer. The ugly tan plastic cup, the pleasant off-white walls, the plastic curtains over the windows he could see to his left: "Hospital?"
"Yeah. You passed out in the bathroom, cracked your head on the floor. Got a bruise the size of your car on the left side of your face. Gina busted the door down when you didn't answer her." Nate pulled a chair closer and sat down.
"Just to be clear... I did not faint... I passed out," Ryan said, then looked at Gina. "Sorry about the delay."
"I'm not in any hurry."
A few hours later, the doctor had rendered his verdict: Ryan had passed out from his chronic high blood pressure, aggravated by the recent stress of losing his wife. They told him to make sure he took his medication. Ryan insisted that he didn't have high blood pressure, but the doctor just smiled and nodded and shoved a prescription slip into his hand.
Ryan was getting dressed in the bathroom when a quiet trilling sounded from Gina's jeans pocket. She pulled out a gray Vox and walked to the far corner of the room as Nate sat, his jubilant mood unusually subdued. "Hello?"
"You didn't check in. I thought something might be wrong," she heard Ivan's voice say.
"Oh, hi Mom." Gina chirped. "Good to hear from you."
"Did you find alternate transportation?"
"Yeah, I'm having a great time. Taking it slow, seeing the sights; southern Washington's pretty this time of year, you know."
"Hitchhiking? I thought that went out of style decades ago."
"You take what you can get."
"I see. The situation has changed; I need you back here."
"What about the trip? I thought you guys were gonna let me have the whole summer all to myself."
"Find a more direct route. I know you'll be in danger, but I've no choice. I need you back here, now."
"Yeah. I get it," she said, and the line went dead. Gina turned around and closed the Vox, sliding it back into her pocket. Ryan had entered the room and was buttoning up his shirt as she spoke. "I guess this isn't my day. That was my mom; my uncle's had a heart attack. Mom and Dad want me back home right away."
"Is he okay?" Nate asked.
"Yeah, but they're worried; family history of heart disease and all that. Dad had a mild heart attack a few years back. Sometimes they overreact a little." Gina went over to Ryan and squeezed his hand. "I'm sorry I don't have more time to spend with you. You're pretty cool."
"I'm old enough to be your grandfather... but 'cool' is right." As he squeezed her hand in return, something changed; for just a moment she seemed to blur, metamorph into someone he might have seen as a child. Denim knickers and a jean jacket, golden hair down to her waist, too much mascara - but the exact same face. Ryan's mouth started to drop in shock, but before any muscles could move the vision passed and Gina was normal again.
Ryan sat heavily on the bed, the wind gone from his lungs. "Ryan? Oh, man, I'll get the nurse," Nate said, his voice rising in fear.
"No... I'm all right. I'm all right," he said, knowing that he was lying. He looked up at Gina, their hands still grasped together, and thought about the sketch pad: Secrets hide themselves. What are you hiding, Gina? "Where's home?"
"St. Louis. Why do you ask?"
She pronounced the city name Saint Looie, but all Ryan was thinking of was his long-departed uncle. "I'll tell you outside. Let's get out of here." He let go of Gina's hand, carefully studying her face in an attempt to place where he might have seen her before.
"Ryan, are you sure? You're not even out of the hospital yet-" Nate said, but Ryan cut him off.
"The doctors say I'm fine... and I don't want to stay here any longer than necessary. Too many memories."
"Yeah, I get that," Nate replied, picking up Ryan's bag.
Ryan refused to be pushed in a wheelchair, and a few minutes later the trio was standing beneath the warm afternoon sun. "How soon do you have to be back home?" Ryan asked Gina as he unlocked the car.
"A day or two, I guess. Mom just wants me back ASAP."
"Good. Nate, you up for some major driving time?"
"Always, as long as it's someone else's car. Where we going?"
"Gina, I think we can get you back home. It's the least I can do, especially after breaking down a door for me."
"A plane would be faster-"
"But you wouldn't get the added bonus of my sparkling conversation. Besides, this way you save the air fare. Maybe you can finish your trip later." Ryan smiled, pulling out all the stops in his effort to charm her.
She thought it over for several seconds... and finally nodded. "Okay."
"Good," Ryan said. "You drive."
From the audio journal of Ryan Dallion
One thing I learned long ago is to follow my hunches, to trust my gut feeling. Secrets hide themselves; I know that. I always have. But some secrets can't stay hidden forever.
And some secrets won't.
I don't know her secrets, but I do know this: Gina Maxwell is more than she appears to be. The way she moves, the way she looks at everything around her, assessing it in detail... it's like she's a predator, ready to strike at the slightest threat. She's no college student.
The only other thing I'm sure of is that meeting up with her is no coincidence. Strange dreams, buried memories, visions, messages that I can't remember writing, all since Micki died. Once, in some other life, I was the tool of fate; I killed my love to save the world. I broke my fate once. By God, I can do it again if I have to.
No matter what the cost.
United Airlines Flight 308
26 miles outside Chicago
Simone's eyes opened before the Vox chimed. "Yes."
"We have a hit on information regarding the girl. Over the last three hours seven different search engines have been queried regarding one Gina Maxwell, a college graduate. The searches originated from an area along Interstate 80 in Wyoming. Searcher's access account is that of one Ryan Dallion, sixty-two, of Santa Marta, California."
Simone was sitting in the almost-deserted first class section; she spoke without fear of being overheard. "Current location?"
"Dallion reserved a two hotel rooms in Laramie, Wyoming less than ten minutes ago."
Perfect. An attractive young hitchhiker and a lonely old man making sure he won't get robbed. "Put the closest team on the motel. Surveillance only; I don't want her to slip away again. I'll be there by ten p.m., local time." She closed the Vox and slipped it back into the inner pocket of her handbag.
Where it rested right next to the utterly undetectable space that contained her tools: various drugs and disposable hypodermics, a .45-caliber automatic pistol with a silencer, three knives - one large and two small - and the tailor's shears that she would use to end the life of 'Gina Maxwell'.
And her traveling companion, Mr. Ryan Dallion.
It was almost sunset when Nate finally spoke up about it.
For most of the night before and all of today, Ryan had been engrossed in his dataflat, always scrolling through something that he kept very carefully shielded from anyone else's eyes. He had spoken, had flashed that aging smile of his a little, had almost seemed normal.
That evening, while Gina was in the restroom of a gas station along the Wyoming interstate, Nate leaned against the car and shoved his hands in his pockets while Ryan topped off the tank. "So... how are you doing?" he said, knowing how lame it sounded even as the words left his mouth.
"Fine," Ryan said.
"Okaaaay..." Nate said, drawing out the word, at a loss for how to say what he intended. "Uh, dude, you seem sort of... distracted today. You know, off in your own little world -"
"I said I'm fine."
"Yeah, all right," Nate shot back, his frustration welling to the surface. "You're just goddamn fine, aren't you? Take off on some late mid-life crisis road trip with some kid who could be playing you - bet you never even considered that, did you? Then you pick up some hitchhiker - at my insistence - proceed to get hospitalized, and send us on a trip to Louisiana the same day."
"Whatever, I don't care, man. You're starting to scare me. You're not acting like the Ryan I know."
"Maybe I'm not. Maybe you never knew me in the first place."
"Bullshit!" Ryan hung up the nozzle and moved to open the driver's door, but Nate shoved it closed before it moved an inch. "What's going on? Who the hell is Uncle Louie? Who the hell is Gina? What's going on in there?" Nate hissed, pressing his index finger against Ryan's temple.
"You'd never believe me."
"Maybe. But at least I'd know that you weren't lying to me. I'd know you believed it."
They stood face to face for a moment before Nate removed his hand from the door. "Get in," Ryan said, seeing Gina emerge from the building. "I'll tell you as soon as we get to the hotel."
"You damn well better."
Ryan drove quickly down the street to the Motel 6 they had rooms at, parked the car and picked up the two room keys. He handed one to Gina, saying "I think I'm going to go right to bed."
"Yeah, these long trips are killers." Ryan shot an angry glare at Nate, who just shrugged as if to say, Sorry, couldn't help myself.
The rooms were directly across the hallway from each other. "Okay. Good night, fellas." Gina went into her room and closed the door behind her, leaving Ryan and Nate alone in the hallway.
In a minute they had entered their room, locked the door, and closed the curtains. "Okay, man. Talk."
"Sit down." Ryan tossed his keys on the endtable, filled a paper cup with water and sat down heavily on the bed as Nate flipped a chair around and straddled it. "What I'm about to tell you... you have to understand one thing first: Every word is true. Even if I sound crazy, or senile, or just plain psychotic. I know how it's going to sound. That's why I never told you, or anyone else.
"Strange things have been happening ever since Micki died. I've been having the same dream every few nights, and I can't figure out what it means. I don't even know if it's actually a dream or some kind of vision. It's dark, and I'm at the top of a bottomless cliff leaning on a cane. I feel something touch me - maybe a hand - and I turn around to see a single candle burning in the darkness.
"On the other side of the candle is a figure. I can't tell who or what; the light is too faint to make out any details. Then the candle dies, and I hear the figure speak. And then I wake up terrified."
Ryan took a sip of water, the act of speaking drying his mouth far faster than it should have. "When you went out this morning, I was talking to Gina... and without realizing it, I wrote this." Ryan pulled out his sketch pad and showed the cryptic phrase to Nate. "That was right before I passed out in the bathroom.
"When I saw Gina in the hospital, when I shook her hand, she... she changed, right before my eyes. She became someone from the Seventies, who could have lived and fit right in when I was a boy. It was just for a moment, and then she was normal again. I've seen strange things in my life, but this... I have no explanation. Not yet. I've been searching the net for information on her, and you know what? There isn't any. Gina Maxwell, college grad, does not exist."
"Okay, she lied, Ryan. Maybe she's on the run from the cops or some psycho boyfriend. Maybe she's got some halfway legit reason. At worst, we blow out of here early and leave her to pay her own way to where-the-hell-ever she's headed. What the hell does any of this have to do with your uncle?"
"That's... a longer story. In September of 1987 I received a letter from a lawyer stating that I had inherited co-ownership of an antique store in Chicago. I had dropped out of art school, my life was going nowhere; I thought it might be my last chance to make a mark on the world. Since I lived in town I figured that I might as well get to know the place, so I got some stuff together to spend the night there. It was a real pit, now that I look back on it: peeling paint and wallpaper, dust and dirt everywhere, packed with more junk than I thought possible. When I was twenty-four I thought it was incredible.
"The other inheritor was some second cousin I'd never heard of named Michael. He was flying in from L.A. later on in the week. I got to the place, set up my stuff, got comfortable... and then a taxi pulled up in front of the store. I figured that it was this Michael guy, so I got the brilliant idea of grabbing this huge weird mask and scaring the crap out of him." Ryan shook his head, remembering the moment. "Turns out that my cousin Michael was actually Michelle; I'd misread the telegram."
"Telegram? When was this, the stone age?"
"Seems like, now that I look back. We could have used a lot of the gadgets around today. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I hid behind the counter, someone comes in the store, they walk up, I pop out and get a vase over my head for the trouble. When I open my eyes, standing right there is this beautiful red-haired woman, very obviously angry with me and scared shitless at the same time. And that was my introduction to Michelle Foster... my future wife."
"Michelle- oh, Micki," Nate said, understanding now. "Whoa, you married your cousin? Isn't that, like, only allowed down south?"
"Second cousin, by marriage. Nowhere near immoral. Can I go on?"
"It turns out that the antique store had been owned by an uncle of ours named Lewis Vendredi - the guy I meant when you thought I said 'Uncle Louie'. Neither of us knew him; we got the store by default when the lawyer couldn't find any other relations... lucky us. I wanted to keep the store; Micki wanted to sell. Guess who won. We ended up selling off most of the inventory. After a couple days, after most of the stuff was gone, this older guy broke in looking to get paid. His name was Jack Marshak. He supplied antiques to Lewis and hadn't been paid in a while. Didn't even know Lewis was dead until we told him.
"And this is where you might think I'm crazy." Ryan took a deep breath. "Uncle Lewis was not your average antique dealer. He was someone powerful, someone dangerous."
"Like a mobster? Uncle Louie Gambone, loan shark and leg-breaker?"
"No... my uncle Lewis made a deal with the devil to sell cursed antiques. But he broke the pact... and it cost him his soul. Micki and I inherited a store full of objects cursed by the Devil, a place of evil meant only to bring suffering and death into the world through indestructible cursed antiques."
Nate just stared at Ryan for almost a minute. Finally he said in a quivering voice, "Excuse me for a sec." Nate stood up and got a cup of water, then splashed cold water over his suddenly sweat-drenched face, convinced he was about to vomit. The bile rose and fell, finally calming enough for him to take a step out of the bathroom without too much worry of ruining the carpet.
"Ryan... I knew that Micki's death hit you hard. I had no idea that you'd cracked so goddamn badly," was what he said, moving to pick up the aging motel telephone.
Ryan's hand grabbed his, the older man's strength surprising him. "I haven't cracked; if anything, I'm thinking more clearly than I have since the day I lost Micki. I've seen things that you can't even dream of. I've seen murderous duplicates of newscasters, swarms of vampire bees, a wax dummy brought to life so realistically that I almost fell in love with her. I walked on the battlefield of Sharpsburg in the year 1864, and in the London fog in 1888. I've seen my own father try to kill Micki, then sacrifice his life to save mine. I've been possessed by demons, and used as the tool of the Devil on two separate occaasions. I've stood at the threshold of the gate to Hell itself. I was transformed into a twelve-year-old child for two years. I've seen Micki die and then returned to life again... and I've even killed Micki myself... all because of my uncle Lewis and the deal he made.
"If you don't believe me, I won't be surprised. But think about this: what do you know about Jay Starr?"
Nate's mouth worked quickly, even though the rational parts of his brain seemed to have fused solid; this was his chosen field. "Real name: Jacob Starretski. A comics genius back in the 1940s. Created Tales of the Undead for Peerless Comics. Main character: Ferrus the Invincible," Nate recited. "Still considered groundbreaking work, at least the early issues when Starr still had creative control. Died in 1988 during a burglary; police believed there may have been foul play, but no hard evidence was ever found to support that."
"Jay Starr used a copy of Tales of the Undead, issue #1, cursed by Lewis to become Ferrus, and killed the president of Peerless and a comic art dealer to retrieve the only way to kill him: the lightning-bolt-shaped award he'd gotten for creating Ferrus in the first place. Starr had drawn the way to kill Ferrus decades before, kept the pages in his personal collection before his caretaker sold them without his knowledge. He threw them in his fireplace but I got to them... and the award... before he could do more harm to anyone. Jay Starr died on the floor in front of me, thankful that he'd been stopped."
Ryan let Nate go, and watched as his friend fell backward against the wall, his face dead white. "That's only one experience out of a thousand that I had in my time at that damned store, one memory I'd give anything in order to forget. Almost anything," he corrected.
"But... but how? It's not possible," Nate whispered, shaking his head as if to drive Ryan's words away.
"It is. I've lived it. And I thank God that we survived and brought the curse to an end. It took almost four years... countless lives... but we broke the curse and made the antiques safe again. Saved the world, in the end. Micki and I got married, moved to California... and tried never to look back.
"But sometimes you can't run from your past. Everything happens for a reason, whether we can understand it or not; there are no coincidences. And meeting up with Gina, right here and now... that sure as hell is no coincidence."
Nate slid to the floor, then grabbed the plastic wastebasket frantically as his lunch came up with a vengeance. His muscles spasmed once... twice... then calmed down as his stomach emptied completely. "Oh God..." he moaned a few minutes later, his hands on his knees.
Ryan had picked up the wastebasket and was tying the plastic bag closed. "I never wanted to have to tell you about what I did so long ago. I'm not proud of some of it... but we did what we had to. Micki and Jack and me at first, Johnny and Joan later on... we all did what we had to. I'm just sorry I dragged you into the middle of this."
"Not your fault..." Nate groaned as he crawled toward the bathroom. "Don't wait up... get rid of that shit," he said, and closed the door behind him.
Ryan slid the chain off, turned the bolt and opened the door -
And found himself staring right into the face of a man with a gun pointed at his chest.
"I may be compromised, Ivan."
Gina paced back and forth across the small motel room, her Vox in her left hand and her pistol in the right. "One of the guys I'm riding with is getting suspicious."
"Calm down. Has he made any overt moves against you?"
"No, but it's just a matter of time if he's one of them."
"I told you to find other means of transport."
"I really didn't have a choice. If he is one of them, I didn't want to tip him off by refusing the offer."
"Give me his name; I'll try to link him to the Order -" A slight bump came from the door, and Gina's head whipped around - along with her gun. "Trouble," she whispered, slapping the Vox closed and sliding it into her pocket. She stepped forward, her gun held straight out in front of her at chest level. She looked down; there was a shadow falling across the crack beneath the door.
Shit. She stepped to the side, but even as she did so she heard the door across the hall start to open. The shadow moved, turning around, and Gina yanked her own door open. Ryan was standing in his doorway with a wastebasket in his hands, a large automatic pistol leveled at his chest by a large man wearing blue work overalls. Without thinking she took two steps forward and pressed the muzzle of her pistol to the back of the man's head. "Take your finger off the trigger." She thumbed back the hammer of her pistol for emphasis.
The man's right hand loosened, the index finger sticking out to the side. "Ryan, take the gun," she said.
Ryan pulled the gun from his hand, the wastebasket held carefully in the other. "Hands on your head," Gina said, retrieving a sturdy plastic strip from her pocket. She pulled his hands down behind his back and secured his wrists, looking quickly down the hall in both directions before shoving him into Ryan's room and shutting the door. She kicked the back of his left knee, sending him to the floor. "You okay?" she asked Ryan.
"Yeah," he said, the adrenaline hammering through his body. "Been a long time since I've had a gun in my face."
"Just like riding a bike." Gina rolled the man onto his back and straddled his chest, pressing her gun to his forehead. "Get the kid and get out of here. You're in danger."
"So are you."
"You're a liability - "
Even as she spoke, Ryan saw her expression change to one of wide-eyed horror. He closed his eyes and a moment later he felt the cold steel of a pistol press to the back of his own head. "Shush, girl," he heard a sultry female voice say, and then a very clear click. The newcomer gently closed the door behind her and pushed Ryan forward. "Drop the gun. Sit. Gina, get up and sit on the bed." The woman offered her free hand to the man on the floor. He reached up, took a firm hold and got to his feet, then leaned down to pick up his own pistol.
Then she pulled the trigger twice, expertly putting the bullets into the base of his skull. The silenced pistol made a sound like a pellet gun; the low-powered rounds penetrated one layer of bone but lacked the power to exit the far side, expending their kinetic energy into his brain as they careened around inside. The man fell to the floor as if controlled by an 'off' switch.
The woman pulled the chair away from the wall and angled it toward the bed, blocking the path that led to the door. She sat, leaned back, and propped her feet on the back of her dead associate, slipping the pistol smoothly into her handbag. "You're a difficult woman to find, Gina. To the casual observer it might seem as if you're trying to avoid me."
Gina said nothing, her face rigid even as her eyes darted around the room, trying to find some way past the woman. "Nonetheless, now that I've found you, you must know what comes next." With a speed so fast that Ryan's eyes could not follow it, the woman lashed out with her hand and covered Gina's mouth and nose. An acrid smell rose from her hand, and Gina's muscles loosened as she fell into unconsciousness.
Ryan's eyes were fixed on the woman as she reached into the bag and pulled out a large curved kitchen knife, the kind most often used in the dreadful horror movies of his teenage years. The woman balanced the knife on her fingertip, the point barely drawing a single tiny drop of blood as she watched their expressions. "Mister Dallion, I know you had nothing to do with this woman before three days ago. Were it up to me, I might have let you walk out of here. However, I simply must take the time to learn what the young lady might have told you about her objective."
She stood, her right hand unbuttoning the suit coat that she wore. In one fluid movement she shrugged it off, her left hand never leaving the handle of the butcher knife. She knelt down before Ryan, the flat of the knife resting lightly on his knee, and took his left hand. "You have the hands of an artist," she breathed, her lips grazing the skin. "Charcoal... graphite pen... high-quality drawing paper." She brought the palm to her lips and gently kissed the tender flesh, tracing the lines with the point of her tongue. Ryan was transfixed for the longest moment of his life.
Then he felt the tip of the knife press firmly against his crotch. "I loathe to take the life of one who uses his gifts to create... You, Mister Dallion, have this choice: tell me whatever you know, or even think you know, and I can make your death fast and almost painless. Lie to me, or hide the truth in the slightest... and your worst nightmares will come to pass. Over... and over... and over again." With each word in the last sentence, she firmly pressed the blade forward. "Do you believe me?"
Then her head whipped around. Ryan saw a movement in the shadows behind her, looked up just in time to see Nate bring the heavy porcelain lid of the toilet tank crashing down over the woman's head. There was a heavy clunk, then the woman slumped to the floor as Nate dropped the bloodied makeshift club on the dead man's back. Nate's eyes never left the bleeding head of the woman as Ryan got to his feet. "I killed her."
"I know. We have to get out of here right now," Ryan said, pulling the unconscious Gina to her feet and dragging her toward the door.
Nate got on her other side, pulled open the door to the hall and looked out, then slammed it closed quickly and locked it. "There's guys with guns out there."
"Uh, three, maybe six. I didn't ask for a head count."
Ryan let go of Gina and looked around the small room; two beds, one aging TV set, one telephone, two bodies, one inoperable window. He picked up the telephone, ripped the cord from its back and flung it at the window, shattering it easily. He grabbed a blanket, tossed it over the jagged glass still stuck in the frame and quickly climbed outside, dropping the four feet to the ground. "Give her to me."
Nate lowered Gina into Ryan's waiting arms, then leaped through the window just as the door was splintered by dozens of bullets. "Go!" Ryan said, running toward his nearby car. Nate ran to the driver's door as Ryan struggled to open the rear door and lay Gina on the back seat. "Keys!" Nate hissed.
Ryan checked his pockets; nothing. Then he realized: "On the bed."
"Oh, great." Nate saw movement back at the broken window. "I'll pay you for this later," he said, then elbowed the driver's side window, spraying glass into the car. He hit the unlock button, opened the door and dove for the floor, reaching up into the steering trunk and pulling out wires as Ryan threw Gina into the car without finesse. "How close?"
Ryan scrambled around to Nate's side as one bullet struck the car, then another. "Close."
Nate jabbed his thumbnails into two wires, exposing bare metal, then jabbed them together. There was a loud pop, a simultaneous "Shit!" from Nate, and the car's engine smoothly turned over and started. Nate leaped into the car as more bullets struck the body, and Ryan was right behind him. As soon as he was halfway in, Ryan shoved the gas pedal to the floor and put the car in gear, the tires screeching as they were catapulted out of the parking lot, over the curb and into the street. Ryan saw three figures enter the street behind them, but there were too many witnesses out in the open for them to do anything but try and follow them.
"Who the hell were they?" Nate yelled.
"I don't know!" Ryan was looking around for a suitable place to ditch the car. He pulled into a darkened lot behind a convenience store and stopped the car behind a wrecked semi trailer. "They know what we're driving. We've got to get new wheels." He looked over at Nate, his own heart thundering. "Can you hot-wire that?"
Ryan was pointing at an ancient Cadillac parked across the street, half primer gray and half rust. "Yeah."
"Do it." Ryan got out and opened the back door as Nate trotted away. He gently slapped Gina's face, trying to wake her. "Come on, Gina, get up. We have to go."
She rolled over, brushing at his hand like it was just a fly. "Leeme 'lone," she mumbled.
"Gina!" Ryan slapped harder and her eyes opened. "Come on!"
She sat up, obviously unsteady. Ryan heard the throaty rumble of the Cadillac's huge engine and looked up to see Nate pulling away from the curb. "Where are we?" she asked.
"Behind a convenience store, running for our lives." Ryan helped her to her feet. When Nate pulled up Ryan opened the passenger door, flipped the seat forward and got in back right behind Gina. "Nate, get us out of here."
"Sure. Where the hell are we going?"
"Anywhere but here. Drive south, stay off the interstate, and whatever you do, don't speed. I don't think they got a good look at you." Ryan ducked down as a police car sped toward the motel, followed by another. "We don't have much time before they lock this place down. Go!"
"Gotcha," was all Nate said as he gunned the engine and turned onto the highway, driving south as more police lights converged on the motel. He was going to ask Gina a question, but he could see in the rearview mirror that she had passed out again. "Ryan, what the fuck is going on?" he said as calmly as he could.
"I don't know... but I'm going to find out."
The pain was dull and fierce, concentrated at the back of Simone's skull like a fencepost being driven into her head. She reached around carefully; her hand came away warm and wet. Blood, she thought. My blood.
She sat up quickly, anger filling her thoughts. She had underestimated the old man and the woman. She had not known about the third person traveling with them. She had been bested by three very lucky individuals whose luck had now expired.
And she was no longer in the hotel room.
Simone reached under her jacket for the collapsible shock-baton she kept there. With a flick of the wrist it extended, the tip glowing faintly blue with 50,000 volts of electricity. She slowly circled around, getting a clear picture of her surroundings: a service station, closed for the night. There were tools on racks and in boxes, oil and various fluids in bottles and cans, an aging Dodge pickup sitting silently with its hood open.
"Be careful," came a voice from the darkness. "You wouldn't want to hurt anyone. Especially me."
"Where am I?"
"Someplace safe. I felt that you might be more... receptive... if we were alone, away from prying eyes." A tall blonde woman stepped out of the shadows, the darkness shrouding her features. "Although our goals are the same, your associates are quite brutal in their methods. You, on the other hand, prefer the delicate approach in your work."
Simone rushed forward, bringing the baton up into the woman's gut with tremendous force, but the blow was stopped when her wrist was caught in a grip of iron. "Such passion... such fire... all wasted in a futile pursuit. Oh, yes, I know all about your goal, your 'partnership' with Douglas Orton. Your potential is so much greater than what he has promised you; don't allow him to hold you back." Simone could feel the bones in her wrist bending, fracturing under the impossible force of the woman's grip. "You worship nothing but a counterfeit, a pretender, who can only exist in the shadow of the Almighty. Stand with me... and I'll show you the true power of darkness.
"I'll show you what Evil truly is."
The Book of Counted Sorrows is the creation and property of Dean R. Koontz. No copyright infringement is intended.
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This page was created on November 4, 2002.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.